Public Advocacy for Open Source Software--Preferences and Requirements

Copied from (the inbound channel to the OSI board):

On 9/28/07, Luis Ibanez wrote:

OSI Board:

As developers of Open Source software, at Kitware we are very excited to see that is more and more common for federal funding agencies to require or encourage the creation and use of open source software when they announce funding programs.

We see with concern however that funding agencies don't seem to have a defined standard on what "Open Source" means, and as a consequence they and the public not always receive what they are expecting in return for the investment of public funds.

To the extent that the public funding agency has a defined goal of funding "open source software", the OSI has always encouraged precisely one definition: software licensed under one of the more than 60 OSI-approved licenses. We have had some luck: some government agencies and some government administrations have actually referenced the OSI's Open Source Definition explicitly, though most have still fallen short of taking the next step, which is to participate in license-discuss and to adopt our approved licenses as *the* definitive list of what is, or is not, open source.

I would love to see a grass-roots campaign by members of the open source community to contact their favorite public agencies and to request that the adopt a policy that:

  1. When refering to open source software, they mean software licensed under terms that conform to the Open Source Definition (listed at
  2. When considering two competing offerings that both appear to meet the Open Source Definition, the one offered under a license that has been approved by the OSI will be prefered to one that has not been approved.

The OSI has felt it necessary to stay relatively neutral on the position of specifically advocating governmental preference for open source software over proprietary software. The libertarian argument is "good code is better than bad code", and since we believe that open source produces better code faster, we should be able to win on the merits without resorting to a specific preference. (Assuming that competition has not been foreclosed by illegal means, in which case no code wins but the all-powerful monopoly.) Others in the open source community do advocate for an explicit open source preference, some from the position of political office, and we certainly don't argue against that!! But we believe that the burden on us is to show that open source is better, and then advocate on behalf of the better code.

However, in my view (and this has not been voted on by the board, it's just my opinion), when a public funding agency has taken a position (for whatever reason) that they have a strong preference for open source software, I believe the OSI does have a stake in that definition, and in that case, we believe that software issued under and OSI-approved license is better qualified as open source than code not covered by such a license, and thus should win not on technical merits, but on legal ones.

If you agree, then whether you are developer looking for funding or a user with an interest in a greater open source ecosystem, make your voice heard!


As a long-term sideline critic of OSI, I guess it might be helpful to say that I think you have a good idea there. This kind of fits with the "pragmatic" conception of the OSI: I'm not aware of *any* deep controversy over OSI's definition / license list. I am aware that on those two "products" OSI is intensely scrutinized by the public. I'm aware that OSI (such as through raising questions of structure/membership reform) is friendly to, not averse to that scrutiny. I can't think of any better idea. It seems a good fit of form and function, assuming a little work to institute it properly. -t